Black Women Unite for Healthy Sex as Essence Celebrates 25th

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Black women from four organizations recently joined forces at Essence Festival in New Orleans for “Black Women United for Healhty Sex” a coalition comprised of: Black AIDS Institute (BAI), the National Minority AIDS Council (NMAC), Sister Love, Inc., and Iris House.  The group was sponsored at Essence by Gilead Sciences.

“We are a coalition that understands the need for a holistic view of Black women’s health working in reproductive health, doing STI and other sexual health work, and ending the HIV epidemic in Black America,” says Raniyah Copeland, President and CEO of BAI.  “We don’t hear a lot about HIV and AIDS these days. Many of us think the epidemic is over. Is it really over for Black women?”  She adds, “HIV and AIDS isn’t over for almost half a million Black Americans who are living with HIV today, and it certainly is not over for Black Women.”

The Essence Festival, known as “the party with a purpose”, is an annual music festival which started in 1995 as a one-time event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Essence, a magazine aimed primarily towards African-American women. It is the largest event celebrating African-American culture and music in the United States. This year Essence Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary.

The coalition had a booth in the community forum hall that included a chalkboard wall for folks to write how they engaged in healthy sex, a photobooth, goodie bags, free HIV home test kits, a raffle for concert tickets, and a survey.  BAI’s Marie-Fatima Hyacinthe, national trainings and programs manager, says, “As a coalition, we gave out easily more than 4,000 pieces of educations materials.  We gave 600 home HIV test kits out.  We collected at least 1,200 survey about stigma, sexual health, and solidarity with Black LGBTQ people.”  She adds, “Most importantly to me, we brought a resounding sex positive and inclusive message to a space that has traditionally had its fair share of heteronormativity and respectability politics.”

There were two center stage moments that highlighted the work of BAI with Copeland speaking about ending the epidemic. BAI board’s first vice chair, actress, Vanessa Williams, hosted the first center stage moment, and singer Ledisi the other.  Four of BAI’s Black Women’s Ambassadors (BWA) also participated in the coalition during the three-day festival at the booth, and for the center stage moments.

BWA Michelle Anderson, says, “I felt a strong sense of sisterhood and a genuine sense that everyone who was part of the coalition truly wanted to created impact about having healthy conversations about sex. This experience will inform my work by continuing to center and affirm Black women’s sexual experiences in hopes of breaking through barriers of shame about who we are, and our bodies.”

BWA Nikkisha Napoleon says, “Although I have worked at Essence for the past eight years, being a part of the ‘Black Women United For Safer Sex’ was the most enriching and validating experience. There was a strong sense of beauty, authenticity, love, and overall a joyous connection of women supporting and lifting one another up.” She added, “I was overjoyed to see so many women take charge of their sexual health, and unafraid to ask questions about HIV and STI transmission.”

Napoleon says her experience at Essence Festival will inform her work in New Orleans. “In order to make an impact, and change the tide about HIV, it’s imperative that sexual health discussions are placed at the forefront.”  She adds, “The work that I currently do will assist me in centering the sexual health of Black women, while also allowing me to continue to dismantle stigma. Additionally, I want to ensure that I continue to hold space for Black women, and allow them to center the beauty of their sexual health, and not be ashamed to have sex, and be shamed for doing so.”

BWA Elle Hill says, “Getting to be a part of a center stage presentation at Essence Fest with Raniyah and Hadeiya (BWA) was a unique, amazing, experience for myself.  They allowed me to be up there with them, and I was there as an educator changing the narrative of HIV and Black trans women.”

Blacks/African Americans account for a higher proportion of new HIV diagnoses and people living with HIV, compared to other races/ethnicities. In 2017, blacks/African Americans accounted for 13% of the US population but 43% (16,694) of the 38,739 new HIV diagnoses in the United States and dependent areas.  Only 50% of women have ever been tested for HIV with 56% of women diagnosed with HIV in 2015 living in the south.  In 2015, the number of new HIV diagnoses was three times greater among Black women than white women.

Hill says, “We are all at risk and we have the tools to end the epidemic.  We need to invest in ourselves and ending the epidemic for ourselves.  We have the resources and the ability to do so.”

*Hygh is the senior communications manager for the Black AIDS Institute.